Narrative artist Mychael Barratt was born in Toronto, Canada, but considers himself to be a Londoner ever since arriving for what was meant to be a two-week stay over thirty years ago. He has an incredible zeal for his adopted home that is rather infectious, including local settings and recognizable vistas in much of his work.
Mychael's paintings and prints are steeped in imagery relating to art history, literature, theatre and everything else that overfills his bookshelves. Language and humour are hugely important too; his titles are an integral part of the work, often involving verbal and visual puns and references to artistic and literary themes.
Interview: Veronica Jones in conversation with Mychael Barratt PPRE Hon. RWS.
You were born in Toronto, Canada. What brought you to the UK?
When I finished studying art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax I amazingly had some money left from my student loan. My options were to pay it back immediately or to put it to some other use. I decided on a whim to travel to Europe for a year so I bought an open ticket to Amsterdam. The plan was to spend a fortnight in London but when I arrived here, I felt like I’d come home. My grandmother was a Londoner so I suppose it’s understandable.
Is humour always an important element of your work?
Humour is an essential element of my work. The titles are crucial to this and are usually conceived at the same time as the image. I don’t see the titles as punch lines, however, but as keys to understanding my motivation. I take the making of my art very seriously but do welcome smiles and laughter as sincere forms of praise.
Mychael Barratt PPRE Hon. RWS, Dungeness, woodcut. £580 framed £450 unframed.
Is history of art and literature an important catalyst for your subject matter?
History is one of my greatest passions – possibly explaining my love for London. I have a large library of art books and am constantly delving into them for inspiration.
Certain artists’ influences are apparent in your work, particularly your artist’s dogs and cats series. Are there any artists that you can point to who have most influenced your work?
The artists that have featured in my artist’s dogs and cats series are always ones that I admire or respect in some way and my pieces are meant as sincere acts of homage. Inevitably, some of the artists have had a much greater influence on my work than others. These would include Chagall, Van Gogh and, of course, Rembrandt.
In terms of composition, your work appears to involve much pre-planning. Do you ever incorporate ‘happy accidents’?
I do a huge number of preliminary sketches and my work involves a great deal of planning. The actual etching process is more like alchemy than an absolute science so there are always accidents, both happy and unhappy – it’s very much a question of luck. However, as the golfer Gary Player said – ‘the more I practice the luckier I get.’
The way I build up a composition very much depends on the nature of the piece. Some are single compositions that I draw in full beforehand while others are made up of many separate preliminary sketches.
Mychael Barratt PPRE Hon. RWS, Urban Myths II - Icarus in Rotherhithe, etching on tea-stained japanese gampi chin-collé. £350 framed £280 unframed.
What first attracted you to printmaking?
I was first attracted to printmaking at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. We had studio access 24 hours a day and I regularly pulled all-nighters in the printmaking studio to be able to edition in peace. I was reintroduced to the idea of taking up etching in London by seeing an exhibition of the work of another fellow RE, Chris Orr.
What techniques and processes do you typically use in your creative practice?
While I work primarily with etching and aquatint, the experience of writing a book on intaglio and interviewing artists about their working practices made me much freer to experiment with various techniques. Of all the ones I wrote about only engraving failed to really hook me, primarily because it is so ridiculously difficult to master. I still regularly do both drypoints and mezzotints.
My latest passion, however, has been woodcuts. I love the relative unpredictability of the medium and the fact that I am not able to completely predict it. I believe it’s important for artists to occasionally surrender control so that their work avoids becoming too slick.
I also paint from a studio in my home, and often use these paintings as source material for my prints. The greatest benefit is a technical one as it is invaluable for working out the colour separation for the different etching plates.
Mychael Barratt PPRE Hon. RWS, Wes Anderson's Dog - Walthanstow Stadium, silkscreen. £550 framed £450 unframed.
Do you keep office hours in the studio?
I try to be quite disciplined about my working day and pretty much keep regular hours of 10 to 6. Having a studio at home as well means that I quite often work in the evenings and weekends too, but try to only do that if everyone else in the family is busy with their own things.
What is life like sharing a studio with fellow RE member, Trevor Price?
Art is a very solitary practice and I don’t teach, so I really love sharing a studio. Trevor Price and I have been sharing a studio for about 20 years and I feel the relationship has just improved in that time. It is really useful to bounce ideas off someone else and there is a cross fertilization of inspiration and techniques that creeps into both our work.
What would be your advice to young aspiring artists?
My main advice to aspiring young artists would be to look at the work of other artists and go to as many exhibitions as possible. Allow yourself to be inspired by others but have faith in your own vision. If you believe in what you’re making, the audience will eventually follow.
Mychael Barratt PPRE Hon. RWS, The Soho Altarpiece, etching & silkscreen with hand colouring. £2900 unframed.
What is the biggest project you've worked on? And are you working on anything exciting at the moment?
My biggest and most ambitious project to date has definitely been The Soho Altarpiece – a ten-panel etching and silkscreen that is an homage to the artist Jan Van Eyck but also a love letter to Soho, the heart of my favourite city. I’m currently working on another large map of London that’s got me completely absorbed.
More like this on the Blog...
Read / Watch: Relief Printing: In the Studio with Trevor Price RE